Turkish Reactions to the French Bill on the Armenians

Attempts to Limit the Damage

Since the lower house of the French parliament passed a bill making the denial of Turkish genocide against the Armenians into a punishable crime, it's not just Turkish nationalists and right-wing politicians who have been protesting against the law. Ömer Erzeren reports

Since the lower house of the French parliament passed a bill making the denial of Turkish genocide against the Armenians into a punishable crime, it's not just Turkish nationalists and right-wing politicians who have been protesting against the law. There have been critical voices from the EU, as well as from Turkish intellectuals, as Ömer Erzeren reports

Demonstrations against french bill in Istabul (photo: AP)
According to the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this is a "black stain" on French history, writes Ömer Erzeren

​​Currently in Turkey you come across stores which display a notice in their windows saying, "We boycott French products." This anti-French protest action arose after the French parliament passed a law last week which would make the denial of Turkish genocide against the Armenians a crime, punishable by a year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros.

Harsh reactions in Turkey

There was a storm of protest in Turkey once it was learned that the bill had passed through the National Assembly. "Liberté, Egalité, Stupidité" ("Freedom, Equality and Stupidity") was the headline in the mass-circulation newspaper Hürriyet. The Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gül spoke of a "great disgrace for France."

According to the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this is a "black stain" on French history. For days there were demonstrations outside French diplomatic missions in Turkey. Professional associations called for boycotts of French products, and politicians called for the exclusion of French companies from state contracts, especially for arms supplies.

Nationalist Turkish politicians came up with the strangest ideas. One suggestion was that Turkey should immediately deport the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from Armenia whoare believed to be in the country. Some called for a law which would define French behaviour during the Algerian war as genocide. Promptly the Istanbul city council decided to put up – in the city's French Street – a memorial to the independence struggle in Algeria.

It was mainly domestic reasons that led to the introduction of a bill on the Armenians in the French National Assembly. Presidential elections are due in France next year, and politicians are courting the favour of voters of Armenian origin. Some French politicians hope that such a law would make negotiations over Turkish accession to the European Union more difficult. These politicians are the ones who anyway don't want to see a Muslim country in the Brussels club.

Critical voices not only from the EU

But the French move was not greeted positively in the EU. The president of the EU commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said that the law was "not helpful;" The Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, said it "was harmful to our common aim."

In France too the law is controversial. Prominent historians, such as Jean-Pierre Azema, Mona Ozouf and Jean Pierre Vernant have condemned the passing of the bill on the grounds that the state was thereby instituting an official view of history.

In Turkey, it's not just nationalists and right-wing politicians who are protesting. Among those who have been speaking out against the law are those who have been facing prosecution in Turkey because they have been prepared to speak out about the Armenian genocide.

Orhan Pamuk, the winner of this year's Nobel prize for literature, is one example. He was charged with insulting "Turkishness" when he referred to the Armenian genocide in an interview. There were scuffles in court as Fascist groups pelted him with eggs. The case was withdrawn following protests at home and abroad.

But, asked about the new French bill, Pamuk referred to the French writers, Voltaire, Zola and Sartre, and said, "This law doesn't fit the libertarian tradition or France's great culture. It's not good for freedom of opinion."

The publisher Ragip Zarakolu, who has repeatedly been in trouble with the Turkish courts for publishing books about the Armenian genocide, is outraged. Those who have bravely broken Turkish state taboos and have had to face the courts as a result, are outraged that the French want to criminalise "incorrect" views of history.

It's a slap in the face for those who have been fighting for the right to deal with history without the interference of criminal law, and it strengthens the position of those who want to maintain the status quo with nationalist taboos.

Strengthening extreme nationalists?

Even among the 70,000 Armenians with Turkish nationality, there are fears that the law passed in far-away Paris could strengthen extreme right-wing nationalists in Turkey. Leading representatives of the Armenian community have also protested.

The editor of the Istanbul Armenian magazine "Agos," Hrant Dink, who has his own experience of dealing with Turkish prosecutors over his references to genocide, has referred to the French move as a "scandal." He has said he will travel to France and publicly deny the genocide there, even though that contradicts his personal view.

And the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul, Mesrob II, gave a long interview to the daily newspaper Milliyet in which he expressed his concern. "The new law passed in France provides nourishment for nationalist and racist groups which want to block the process of dialogue," he said. "This will be the start of a dangerous process."

There are now deep differences between Armenians in Turkey and those in the diaspora. While Armenians in the diaspora see the Armenian genocide as an important element in their sense of indentity, the Armenians in Turkey are more concerned about living their daily lives without discrimination. They tend to agree with Patriarch Mesrob that they would be most helped by an improvement in relations between Turkey and its poor neighbour Armenia.

Such an improvement is made more difficult by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaidjan over the territory of Nogorny Karabach. Turkey is closely linked to Azerbaidjan as a result of the two countries' joint economic interests in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, and for years the border between Turkey and Armenia has been closed.

Chances for a new policy of deescalation

The opening of the border and the beginning of an Armenian-Turkish dialogue would help bring about a relaxation of the political tension. The Turkish prime minister has suggested to Armenia that the two countries could set up a commission with historians from both sides to deal with this chapter of the history of the Ottoman empire.

The massacre of the Armenians during the First World War has been subject to a taboo in Turkey for almost a century. Not until last year did Turkish intellectuals begin to look at this aspect of the history of their own country in public.

The fact that an international conference with Armenian historians taking part could take place in Istanbul, in spite of threats and attempts to ban it, was a major achievement. It would be a disaster if the debate which has only just begun were to be smothered by a French law.

But the chances that this won't happen are quite good. After the initial uproar, the government in Ankara has been trying to limit the damage. The bill has still to pass through the French Senate. And the president has to agree. There's every chance that it won't get that far.

Prime Minister Erdogan has said, "We should not answer one error with another." Foreign minister Gül has opened up the possibility that paragraph 301 of the criminal code, which lays out the penalties for "insulting Turkishness," could be revised. The abolition of the law would certainly give a boost to those who don't want to view their history from behind the shadow of the criminal law.

Ömer Erzeren

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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